Hialeah firefighters, city battling over pay and benefits

Despite coming close to an agreement a few weeks ago, Hialeah firefighters and city officials continue to fight over pay and pension benefits, with the next round set for Tuesday’s council meeting.

The city’s proposal would affect the firefighters’ retirement, pay and health care. In addition to changing the retirement formula, they would also be moved to the city’s insurance. Currently, firefighters are insured by the International Association of Fire Fighters, or IAFF, a labor union representing paid full-time firefighters and emergency medical services personnel in the United States and Canada.

Under the proposal, firefighters would retire at age 52 with 25 years of service or age 55 with 10 years of service. The pension would be calculated using base pay from the average of their highest five years’ pay. This would replace a complicated system that involves points and hire dates, and has led to at least one firefighter on staff who is close to 70.

The proposed changes are in addition to a wage cut of 6 percent enacted on June 7.

Council President Vivian Casáls-Muñoz noted the city must be very careful with retirement benefits.

“My only concern is the retirement because it’s the only thing you can’t take back,” said Casáls-Muñoz. “I am asking of the union to keep the firefighters informed. I truly believe we are very close.”

The ongoing feud between the city and the fire department has been brewing since 2011, when a budget cut reduced the workforce from 266 to 161 firefighters.

Mayor Carlos Hernandez has said he believes the current pension plan is unsustainable, while firefighters say the cuts are unfair. During a Sept. 24 council meeting, wives and family members of the firefighters filled the room and showed their support by wearing red shirts.

Mario Pico, a member of the Hialeah Association of Firefighters, started off on an emotional beat while addressing the council.

“We are your arms, hands, and feet out there,” said Pico, a former union president. “We’re asking you to sit with the mayor one on one, some questions need to be answered. We’ve given up a lot, it’s not just us, it’s our families. We’re simply asking you to table.”

After the tension-filled meeting where Hernandez claimed he wasn’t “intimidated” by union officials, he tabled a vote on the proposal and said he wanted every single person in the room to attend the next negotiations.

“We’re back in 2016,” said Hernandez in a city council meeting Oct. 8. “My understanding was that we were very close. But we are very far apart.”

Hernandez said during that meeting that the union was ready and willing to accept a contract similar to one offered to the Hialeah Police Department, but changed its mind during a negotiation meeting Oct. 1.

The police contract, which went into effect August 2018, includes provisions such as negotiating insurance coverage with the city’s plan providers on a yearly basis, the city agreeing to pay 70 percent of the premiums, and providing some post-employment coverage. Though police officers did not receive the 6 percent cut, they will have to contribute 10 percent from their salaries into their pensions starting next year.

Firefighters, on the other hand, will continue to pay 4 percent into their pension under the city’s proposal.

“Thank you for tabling the ordinance,” said Robert Ortega, vice president of the Hialeah Association of Firefighters. “I’ve been here for the past three years and we were not offered what the police were offered.”

Hernandez responded by stating he wasn’t there to argue.

“I almost sometimes feel like people are trying to make it political,” said Hernandez. “I want something done really quick. I keep delaying and tabling because I know people are being affected.”

This issue is scheduled to be discussed again at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22 at Hialeah City Hall, 501 Palm Ave.

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